Being born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, Leslie Wagner always took hurricane forecasts seriously.  In late August of 2005, this LSU graduate and art teacher didn’t hesitate to load up her Subaru with the essentials: Mamou the cat and his supplies; a mountain bike; a lawn chair; some clothes and camping supplies. She took off  to Jackson, MS, to wait out the hurricane in a hotel room. “I planned to treat this evacuation like a vacation. I thought I would be back in a week,” she says.


After the levies broke, Wagner began a 2-month exodus that eventually led her to a new home in Knoxville. After she and a few friends spent awkward days couch surfing in Memphis and Nashville, another friend suggested she rest in Knoxville before crossing the mountain into Asheville, NC. “I had never heard of Knoxville before,” says Wagner. That friend arranged for Wagner to stay with an English instructor who worked at the University of Tennessee. “It was nice. I finally had time alone and was able to rest. I applied for a few jobs while I was here. Some Louisiana friends began getting back in touch through the FEMA registration website.” Four days later she continued her journey to Asheville where she received comfort from a Louisiana friend and his mother. “By this time, I was very worried about the people I had left behind. What happened to all of them? I missed my job and was worried about my co-workers and students.” After leaving Asheville she drove to Long Island, New York, to visit her aunt. “Her home on the Gulf Coast was destroyed, too, but she was in New York when the hurricane hit. We stayed in cabins and I looked for work. I tried to relax and pretend things were normal.”


In October, Wagner returned to Knoxville with a gig teaching French at a local high school. Before settling down, she returned to New Orleans to empty her trashed home and to see if anything was salvageable. “My house was hot like a stew. I wore a Hazmat suit and mask I bought at Lowe’s in Knoxville. While shopping for that suit, rubber containers, and bleach, a curious bystander gave her $20 when he realized she was returning to New Orleans to salvage whatever might be left in her destroyed home. “People in Knoxville were very supportive,” she says. I had no possessions except for the things in my car. That loss brings it down to what you really need. I didn’t rush to acquire stuff. A friend gave me a futon. I still don’t own any books; I only use the library now.”

“I was fortunate that I had a credit card, some savings, and a small amount of insurance money. It was really nice that the school I had been working for paid us for three months after the hurricane. I’m grateful I did not have to rush to work full-time and could take time to rest.”

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Leslie says, “I kept quiet. I didn’t talk much during my first year in Knoxville. Yoga and hiking got me through this hard time. I would walk in flip-flops all day in the mountains, just putting one foot in front of the other. I needed to exhaust myself so I could fall asleep at night. Whenever I wasn’t crying, I felt good for the moment. I continued practicing yoga to work the stress out of my body.” A series of other ailments arose and Wagner also began suffering from debilitating migraines. “I was still in shock,” she says. “A friend invited me to stay with her. I was able to sleep in a dark room in a real bed with nice covers, in an air-conditioned room. I was able to sleep uninterrupted for an entire day. I could finally feel the pain starting to heal.”

Wagner says she “sought out a place to continue making pottery and began taking a class at Mighty Mud. I still wasn’t talking much. I didn’t bring up Katrina. I just did art and walked in the mountains.

Through happenstance, another art student learned Wagner was using yoga to cope with her traumatic experience. That student asked Wagner to teach yoga at the City/County building and Wagner initially turned down the offer. When she eventually accepted the offer and began guiding the yoga classes, Wagner realized she wanted to become a certified instructor. “Yoga was my direction. Because I needed financial aid, it took me a year to become certified at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health located in Massachusetts. Wagner has also taught yoga at Ijams Nature Center, YWCA, the University of Tennessee, and the Knoxville Arts & Fine Crafts Center, where she has also recently taught conversational French. “I can teach you how to tell someone off in French and really sound angry!” Wagner has also been locally active with Capoeira martial arts, modern dance, ballet, and bike riding.

Modern Times

“I feel reestablished in this town. It feels like home now,” says Wagner.  She bought a house with a FEMA loan, and created an art studio in her basement. Her house is sparsely furnished.  “I’m still very aware of everything being temporary. I have no expectations anymore,” she says. ” When I go back to New Orleans, the air, plants, and sunlight still feel like home. The sound patterns of people’s conversations and their accents, and their ways of telling stories are familiar and familial. It is like New Orleans forms my roots and Knoxville,  where the air is thinner, and I am literally higher up, forms my branches. ”


© Debra Dylan, 2013.

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